About 45,000 Kaiser Permanente workers voted overwhelmingly last week to retain the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) as their bargaining representative. In doing so, the workers rejected a multimillion-dollar attempt by rival union the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and its ally, the California Nurses Association (CNA). It was the second time in nearly three years that Kaiser workers voted to remain members of SEIU-UHW and turned down a bid by NUHW. Last week's election was ordered by the federal labor board after the 2010 results were vacated because of irregular behavior by Kaiser management.
In this space nearly three years ago, I implored NUHW to stop wasting union resources and enthusiasm (see "NUHW Vote Is a Bloody Nose for the Labor Left," 10/20/10). But NUHW pressed on with its expensive campaign, and last week Kaiser workers forcefully turned back that effort. In a stinging rebuke to the leadership of the NUHW and the powerful CNA, Kaiser workers voted 59 percent to 40 percent to retain SEIU. The result was almost identical to the 2010 vote numbers, which were 61 percent for SEIU and 39 percent for NUHW.
To recap: Four years ago, the former leadership of the SEIU hospital division in California left their union to start the NUHW. These leaders were full of a genuine fighting spirit, and many of their gripes about the direction taken by SEIU national leadership had merit. But the manner of the dissidents' split was condemned by a federal court jury and earlier this year by a federal appeals court, which upheld the jury's monetary award against NUHW and some of its individual officers.
In the first election, NUHW did a masterful job lining up powerful moral and financial support from local progressive politicians, intellectuals, financiers, and unions that have a gripe with SEIU. However, Kaiser workers were not impressed, and NUHW was crushed in the voting.
In the second election, NUHW was confident that it would be successful. NUHW leaders argued that SEIU is a "sell-out" union — and had three year's worth of data to use to support their claim. NUHW also contended that it could deliver on its militant promises — and had evidence of what it could, or could not, produce, having been the certified bargaining representative at a number of smaller units in Kaiser and other health-care employers.
With the knowledge of the exorbitant cost of running an election that both sides claimed was the largest union election since workers at the Ford Motor Company voted to join the United Automobile Workers in 1941, the NUHW courted other unions for financial resources. NUHW borrowed, according to its most recent government financi al filing, $4.3 million from other "Labor Organizations." Then the union partnered with CNA, which has its own serious contract issues with Kaiser and is in a battle with SEIU over how to approach Kaiser management. CNA, in turn, looked to NUHW as a pugnacious ally to support its bargaining strategy. CNA is seen by many as one of the most militant and effective unions in the country.
The amount of money — money that came directly out of the pockets of health-care workers — spent in the election was obscene. At least $10 million was wasted in the futile decertification effort, and the final tally is likely to be much higher. SEIU admits spending $4 to $5 million in this fight, and credible estimates put NUHW-CNA spending well above that. However, a spokeswoman for CNA refused to confirm or deny the amount spent, saying that the cost was "irrelevant." (A call to the spokesman for NUHW was not returned.) Each side used a vibrant social media campaign. NUHW-CNA ran expensive ads on television, including during English soccer matches. SEIU brought in dozens of staff from other states to go door-to-door to speak with Kaiser workers.
All sides were surprised that the final election results barely changed from the previous election. Internal pre-election assessments by NUHW and CNA predicted a significant win for their side. Sal Roselli, president of NUHW-CNA, said in a statement that he was "stunned" by the election results. Deborah Burger, a president of CNA, told me she was "heartbroken" and beyond "irritated." Burger, a rank-and-file nurse and committed union officer who passionately believes in the community of workers and patients, feels that workers were "terrified" by Kaiser management's support for SEIU.
The argument that the workers were too scared to vote for NUHW-CNA was condescending and paternalistic when made by NUHW supporters to explain their 2010 defeat. And one cannot credibly claim that, with the backing and money of the militant and committed this time around, Kaiser workers were again mousy and scared. It's more likely that Kaiser workers chose a bird in the hand over two in the bush. Given the continuing grinding austerity facing the American working class, and the weakening position of the union movement, few workers were willing to take a spin on the NUHW roulette wheel.
The big loser here, however, is CNA and its members. It gambled its prestige and millions of dollars of its members' money, yet barely moved the needle when the final results were announced, tarnishing the patina of its much-vaunted power. This is sad for labor and progressives everywhere.
The CNA must decide how to proceed. Burger believes the fight is about "union democracy." But democracy should be about listening to the people. The Kaiser workers have spoken — twice. It is time for this fighting to stop.
Full Disclosure: I know many on each side of this fight, have legally represented dissenters and incumbents in union battles, and I have a distant cousin who is a high-ranking SEIU official.